Archives: 06/2010

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is taking another look at mandatory minimum sentencing and Cato adjunct scholar, Erik Luna, offered his thoughts [pdf] to Commission members, along with other experts. 

The ACLU’s Jay Rorty blogged about what he said and witnessed at the hearing:

I told the commission the story of an ACLU client, Hamedah Hasan, who received a life sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense under the most extenuating circumstances: she came to stay with her cousin in order to flee a physically abusive relationship, and the cousin roped her into running errands for his drug conspiracy. Despite her previously clean record, her sentencing judge found his hands tied by a combination of mandatory minimums for crack cocaine and the then-mandatory sentencing guidelines based on those minimums. Hamedah’s sentence has since been reduced from life to 27 years, but she still has 10 years left to go. Hamedah has three daughters and one granddaughter. She gave birth to her youngest child in prison, and because of the ripple effect of this sentencing structure, Hamedah’s children and grandchildren are growing up without her. The judge has publicly urged that her sentence be commuted (reduced) and the ACLU filed a petition three months ago asking President Obama to do so.

Another tragic story recounted today was that of Weldon Angelos, who was facing a sentence of 6-9 years for dealing marijuana — until the government added three gun charges carrying increasingly harsh minimums that the law requires to be “stacked,” that is, to be added on top of one another. Even though he never fired the gun or threatened anyone, the fact Weldon had the gun with him on several occasions was enough to increase his sentence to 55 years, in spite of his judge’s firm conviction that the sentence was unfairly severe. Listening to stories like this made me wonder how Congress could have let this state of affairs persist for so long and whether they will ever be serious about changing it.

For more information, go to the FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) web site.

Update: Woman sentenced to life imprisonment for kissing a 13-year old boy and placing his hand on her breast.

How to Cut Military Spending

Several months ago, I co-authored an op-ed in Politico with Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network calling on the White House and Congress to include the Pentagon’s budget in any deficit reduction package.

because our national security rests on our economic health as well as on the strength of our military, a liberal and a libertarian can agree that the Pentagon should no longer get a pass.

That op-ed caught the attention of Congressman Barney Frank. He formed the Sustainable Defense Task Force, an ad hoc advisory panel to assemble a list of possible reductions in military spending that would not undermine essential U.S. security.

Last Friday, the task force presented its findings at a press conference at the Capitol. You can read the full report here [.pdf].

Ben Friedman and I collaborated on the portion of the report that makes the case for a new grand strategy of restraint that would allow for substantial cuts in military spending. Our op-ed in this morning’s Los Angeles Times focuses on one key theme: we spend too much because the U.S. military does too much.

A few excerpts:

The Cold War is over. While we were defending our allies in Europe and Asia, they got wealthy. The new status quo is that we offer them perpetual security subsidies — and risk being drawn into wars that do not serve our security interests.

[…]

By avoiding the occupation of failing states and shedding commitments to defend healthy ones, we could plan for far fewer wars, allowing cuts in force structure, manpower, procurement spending and operational costs. The resulting force would be more elite, less strained and far less expensive.

[…]

Our deficit problem is an opportunity to surrender the pretension that we are the world’s indispensable nation, preventing instability, shaping the international system and guiding history. We should be content to settle for being the big kid on the block that looks out for itself and occasionally helps friends in a bad spot. That approach would take advantage of the security we have, and save money we don’t.

As Cong. Frank explained at the press conference, if cutting defense was easy, we would have done it by now. Defense is a core function of government – any government. That might explain why conservatives, and even some libertarians, are more resistant to Pentagon spending cuts than they are to cuts at the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Education (etc.).

Yet much of what Washington does today isn’t defense, which means that the Pentagon’s budget shouldn’t escape scrutiny. The notion that we should close the budget deficit while leaving the military’s share off the table is untenable.

For one thing, it is a key driver of the enormous growth in government spending over the past decade; inflation-adjusted “national defense” outlays (including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) have grown by 86 percent since 1998.

What’s more, the phrase “national defense” is a misnomer, at worse, misleading, at best. We should ask “Defend whose nation?” Most of what Americans spend on our military today is focused on defending other countries that should defend themselves. Once that reality sinks in – and I think it has already – it shouldn’t be that hard to focus the public’s attention on what we spend on our military, and what we get in return.

For the sake of our fiscal health as well as our physical security, we can and should make responsible reductions in military spending. By drawing down the size of our military, reducing our global footprint, and adopting a more restrained grand strategy, we can achieve a sustainable level of military spending that keeps America safe and strong for a very long time to come.

Massachusetts Treasurer on ObamaCare: ‘We Should Stop It’

Massachusetts Treasurer Tim Cahill, who is running for governor as an independent, claims that former governor Mitt Romney’s 2006 health care law “has created a huge hole in our budget,” and has this to say about ObamaCare:

If the federal plan is the Massachusetts plan writ large, then we should stop it, because we’re going to be in the same place four or five years down the road.

Indeed, ObamaCare is the Massachusetts plan writ large.

Repeal the bill.

America’s Alliances: Frayed, but not Disappearing

National Journal’s Paul Starobin asks at the National Security Experts blog “Are America’s Alliances Fraying?” Starobin notes that two normally reliable allies, Brazil and NATO member Turkey opposed an additional round of sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, President Obama has failed to persuade Europeans to provide large numbers of troops to Afghanistan. “Is the ability of Washington to assemble coalitions on behalf of its global objectives starting to ebb?” Starobin asks. “Are our alliances fraying – and if so, why? Does this trend have to do with our flailing economy, with inept diplomacy, or with some other set of factors?”

Excerpts from my response:

It is hardly newsworthy when one of America’s allies bucks Uncle Sam. It has become an almost daily occurrence.

[…]

But just because the United States has had difficulty keeping its allies in line doesn’t mean that it can’t assemble a coalition to deal with common challenges. It all depends on whether the parties agree on the nature and severity of the threat, and on the best means for mitigating it. In this context, the multinational naval task force operating off the Horn of Africa has had great success beating back piracy in the region. The countries that choose to participate agree that piracy poses a threat to their commercial interests, and are willing to band together in a loose coalition – and not as part of a formal, permanent alliance – in order to deal with the challenge. Their contributions are generally consistent with their interests; the benefits seen as in line with the costs.

Alliances are no different, or, at least, they shouldn’t be. Alliances are supposed to be sustained by interests. (British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston’s observation that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests” has been repeated so many times that it has become cliched). And yet, the United States has maintained its commitment to NATO, South Korea and Japan in recent months, even as it is obvious that the parties do not share common interests. The alliances have become an end in and of themselves, instead of the means to an end.

[…]

When she presented the Obama administration’s national security strategy late last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that NATO was one of several global commitments that was “embedded in the DNA of American foreign policy.”

Hardly. While a bipartisan consensus in Washington is enamored of Europe’s dependence upon the United States, most Americans tire of defending our wealthy European allies who are eminently capable of defending themselves. The resentment has only grown as these same allies have shown precious little enthusiasm for supporting the United States in its hour of need in Afghanistan.

[…]

We have created a class of wealthy and secure allies who lack the capability, but most importantly the will, to act on their own behalf, let alone in the service of the world’s policeman.

Read the full response here.

Gov. Bob McDonnell Needs to Lead on the Budget and Education

Gov. McDonnell just signed a bill that will give a tax credit to the film industry. They will shell out up to $2.5 million to movie-makers in the first year and up to $5 million thereafter. Proponents say it might save money. Unfortunately, the evidence from other states suggests it will lose money.

At a time of economic turmoil and budget problems, the Governor wants to lose money by giving a tax credit to the film industry. It’s even refundable, which in normal-talk means the state will send a check to a film executive even if he doesn’t owe any taxes; that’s a straight BAILOUT, not a tax credit. The last thing Virginia needs is another corporate bailout.

What is wrong with our Commonwealth? And what in the world is Governor McDonnell thinking?

There is one tax credit that has consistently proven to save money and increase achievement in public schools: education tax credits.

Florida recently expanded its successful education tax credit program to $140 million with the support of 42 percent of Democrats and almost every Republican. The program was found by the government to save $1.49 for every dollar invested in the credits. And the official academic researcher for the program just found that it significantly increases public school performance.

Strangely, education tax credits are not on the Governor’s agenda. Why?

Why is a Governor who had the good sense to appoint a true education reformer, Gerard Robinson, as the Secretary of Education not out front leading the movement for effective, efficient investment in education?

Look to Pennsylvania, to Georgia, Iowa, Rhode Island, Illinois, Arizona, any of the nine states supporting twelve education tax credit programs to see the new, bipartisan wave of education reform. A toothless Virginia charter school law will do nothing to improve education or save money. And the constitution won’t allow a strong charter law.

We need to save money, not waste it on another corporate bailout. We need to increase achievement.

We need leadership, Governor. We need education tax credits in Virginia. Now.